How Games Tell You What to Do

Link partners

Video games create vast worlds for players to inhabit, and offer endless opportunities for interaction. That’s pretty cool. It also poses a problem unique to video games as a medium.

It’s easy to get lost.

With only a few unconventional exceptions, other media guide their audience along one specific path. When I read The Lord of the Rings, for example, I’m given a clear story to follow—the one Tolkien wrote. As he describes Frodo’s journey to Mordor, I can’t choose to see what’s happening back in Hobbiton or Rivendell. Either I read Tolkien’s story, or I don’t. I merely experience it. I don’t create it.

Video games are different. A game allows players to interact with its world, giving them a hand in creating the story. Maybe, as I play a Legend of Zelda game, I’m supposed to rescue Princess Zelda, but choose to smash pots and attack chickens instead. The protagonist, Link, is only a hero if I want him to be.

Games give players an amazing degree of freedom, with many potential paths to take. It’s only natural, then, for games to guide the player toward the path their developers intended.

There are many approaches to guiding the player. The Legend of Zelda series often gives Link companions, as seen in the picture above. (I wanted to attribute it, but couldn’t find the artist.) These range from the traditional (a fairy) to the bizarre (a talking hat). These partners give Link advice on where to go and what to do next, guiding the player toward the game’s intended objectives.

This approach works pretty well, but can become irritating as Link’s companions boss him around or spell out every little step of his journey. The latest Legend of Zelda game doesn’t seem to have a partner system, which should allow players to wander more freely.

Other systems for guiding the player include marking objectives on a map, offering text or audio cues, or structuring game environments to direct the player toward the next goal. Some games are straightforward enough not to offer any guidance: Tetris and Pac-Man are good examples.

When I pick up a new game, I’m always interested to see how it tells me what to do.

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